Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Networking for leaders

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Tiziana Casciaro

You have said that networks matter to outcomes that are important for both individuals and organizations. How so?

The easiest way to think about it is that nobody can do it alone. We are no longer able to perform our complicated, interdependent jobs by ourselves. It’s not like being a cobbler in the olden days, with a workshop where make shoes alone. Today, there are only small pockets in organizations where people can work in isolation. For the most part, we need others for knowledge, resources, and access to opportunities.

Internal and external networks are critical for carrying out any kind of job today. The whole point of having organizations in the first place is to have people with different competencies and expertise come together to pursue something collectively important that they could never achieve on their own.

Talk a bit more about how these networks contribute to making us effective in the workplace.

It’s a question of moving away from what the formal design of an organization tells us about who has what I need to get the job done? It’s about figuring out informally what the right channels are for us to access the resources we need. The formal design of an organization is a top-down idea that says, You and I are supposed to work together, and therefore we will be placed in the same department. But the reality is that it is very difficult to predict each and every interaction that a job will require, and as a result, people have to take their destiny into their own hands and build informal networks to get things done. In many cases, it’s not clear from the formal structure that this is the right person for you to contact — but it very well might be, and so, off you go. You call the person or email them and start to build a relationship in a more emergent rather than official kind of way. We have found that only about 50 per cent of the actions workers take in relation to communicating with others are part of an organization’s formal design. The rest is discretionary.

In your research, you have found that people have very different feelings about social networking and professional networking.

They do, and it all has to do with the process of building relationships. We often think of networking as a purposeful process of going out there, making contacts and nurturing those relationships. The point we have highlighted in our research is that when you make connections socially, that type of a relationship is assumed to be neutral. If you do me a favour, because we’re friends, I will be there for you when the time comes. There is an unspoken assumption of reciprocity and mutuality, which makes people feel good about these relationships. That’s because we tend to feel more morally worthy when we engage in actions that are intended to benefit other people versus ourselves.

Professional connections — the ones we build on purpose in order to get our job done — are much harder to conceptualize and justify as being altruistically motivated. You build these connections for yourself, basically, and as humans, whenever we have a selfish motivation, we feel morally iffy. That’s where our feelings of discomfort with networking come from. When you hear someone say, I hate networking; it’s such a chore, what they mean is not that they find it unpleasant or stressful. They find it morally compromising because it’s a question of putting one’s self interest ahead of any kind of higher purpose. And that makes most of us feel yucky.

In truth, we are self-serving and self-interested all the time, but it’s a question of being able to tell yourself a story about your own behaviour. For instance, I will be more likely to enjoy work-related networking when I feel like I have a lot to give. Likewise, if I network on behalf of others — for a team member or a relative — the dirtiness around networking is lessened, because an altruistic motive is triggered. At least in my self-justification of the behaviour.

Should people who are in positions of power feel compelled to network, as a way of giving back?

Absolutely. That is actually the best way to make networking not only productive, but energizing. When you do it with the purpose of advancing a collective objective or to lift up someone in your sphere of influence, network building becomes a highly positive experience.

At the end of the day, it’s the people who don’t have as much power who need to network the most — yet they are the ones who are least likely to do it, because they feel morally questionable about the process. For them, it’s a one-way street. It’s important to take steps to make the experience a two-way street for lower-power individuals. One way to do that is to help those with less power re-think what people find valuable. Too often, we think narrowly about what we can offer — the material resources, the money, the access to certain networks. But many other resources are valuable even to the higher-ups — reputation, belonging, a higher purpose, and an understanding of technologies and generational trends that they might have grown disconnected from. By thinking broadly about what you can offer, you can make networking more positive for those who are coming from a position of disadvantage.

How has social media impacted networks?

In many ways, it’s is a double-edged sword. When you look at how it’s been used to mobilize action, it has clearly made it very easy to leverage huge networks. With the click of a mouse, you can access hundreds, even millions of people, depending on your followership you have. However, in our research we are finding that to be effective you need to match this incredible access to people around the world with some more traditional orchestration of action behind the scenes. You can really shape how people think and go about their day-to-day; but for that to be sustainable, it has to be backed up by an organized structure.

Take the Women’s March a few years ago: Look at how easily women all around North America — and the world — mobilized when Donald Trump was elected. It only took a few days to put it together and make it happen. But the piece that really got traction was the one that supported the election of women into positions of political power. That’s what can happen when you couple the power of social media with a sustainable network or institutional powers that are well-established. That’s how you get traction in the long run.

Powerful people who leverage social media tools can actually shape how people think. When it comes to the counterpart to that — whereby grassroots people push back on people with power — we are finding that it’s very easy to agitate and shake things up, but much harder to propose new ways of doing business and be taken seriously alongside the established institutions. Those things still require old-fashioned methods, like organization.

In general, are people leveraging their networks effectively?

When I started studying this topic in the mid-1990s, a lot of people didn’t even know what a network was, and the idea of social networks had not yet emerged. Nowadays, people are very conscious that, without relationships, nothing happens.

I should say that, while we might not have called them networks, there’s plenty of evidence that we’ve always done these things. Great salespeople, for instance, have always had tremendous networks. It’s just human nature to seek out people to help you get things done. Technology has changed the scope significantly so that we can now leverage much more diverse networks, potentially. But the downside of this is that we see lots of echo chambers. The gravitational pull towards people similar to us is still a major determinant of our networks. When people talk about polarization in the political or economic sense, it is partly fueled by the fact that, in theory, we could have networks that are profoundly diverse; however, that’s not always the case. We all have the potential for much more diversity in our networks.

What differences between men and women have you noted in terms of networking?

While we don’t build networks differently, men and women — in positions of leadership, in particular — are perceived differently, and that does shape the kinds of networks that they are able to build. The other thing that makes a huge difference is the availability of men and women in different pockets of professional life. If I want to network with powerful people, and I look up at the totem pole in many environments, I will find more men than women. Women also tend to network better with other women, and men with other men — which takes us back to the basics of human behaviour: We gravitate to people who look and sound like us, because we understand them better and we believe they understand us.

Are networks working against diversity and inclusion? Should we be forcing ourselves to branch out?

Definitely, and that is why we need leaders, in particular, to create a context in which people can connect on a more level playing field. Relying on people to do that on their own initiative is not enough. Leaders have to create a context in which it’s possible for people who don’t naturally engage with networking in a comfortable way to have opportunities to do so.

We need more programs for women, minorities, and people who don’t have networks at their fingertips, to help them interact systematically. Setting up pathways to facilitate network access for everyone is very important.

Tiziana Casciaro is a professor of organizational behaviour at the Rotman School of Management and holds the Jim Fisher professorship in leadership development at the University of Toronto. Her forthcoming book, co-authored with Julie Battilana, is tentively titled The Truth About Power. It will be published in Spring 2021. Casciaro was named to the Radar List of the 30 management thinkers in the world most likely to shape the future of how organizations are managed and led by the UK-based Thinkers50.